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Fears grow for Rafah as Israel-Hamas war rages on 200th day


April 23, 2024 11:58 PM

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The Israel-Hamas war entered its 200th day on Tuesday as aid groups warned that Israeli plans to invade the southern city of Rafah where most Gazans have taken refuge would create an "apocalyptic situation".

Fears have been rising that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon follow through on repeated threats to send troops into Rafah, where 1.5 million people have sought shelter, many in makeshift encampments.

"Everybody seems to be on a countdown to war across the largest displacement camp on Earth, which is Rafah," Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland told AFP.

Egeland warned that a ground assault on Rafah would be an "apocalyptic situation" and that humanitarian groups "are completely in the dark on how to mitigate this countdown to a catastrophe".

Also on Tuesday, the United Nations rights office said it was "horrified" at reports of mass graves found at the Gaza Strip's two biggest hospitals after Israeli sieges and raids.

Israel has repeatedly targeted Gazan medical facilities during the war, accusing Hamas of using them as command centres and to hold hostages abducted on October 7. Hamas denies the accusation.

Gaza's Civil Defence agency said nearly 340 bodies were uncovered in the past three days of people killed and buried by Israeli forces at the Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Yunis.

Israel's army responded by saying that claims it had buried Palestinian bodies were "baseless and unfounded", without directly addressing allegations that Israeli troops were behind the killings.

The army said that "corpses buried by Palestinians" had been examined by Israeli troops searching for hostages and then "returned to their place".

UN rights chief Volker Turk called for an "independent" probe into the deaths at Nasser and Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospitals, noting the "special protection" awarded to medical facilities under international law.

 Calls to free hostages 

The Israeli army carried out intense shelling overnight of Gaza City, AFP correspondents and witnesses said, with the military saying it also struck Hamas positions in south Gaza.

Shelling and loud explosions were heard in southwest Gaza and Khan Yunis city, while strikes hit the Bureij and Nuseirat refugee camps in central Gaza.

The war began with an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in the death of around 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

In retaliation, Israel launched a military offensive that has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel estimates that 129 of the roughly 250 people abducted during the Hamas attack remain in Gaza, including 34 who the military says are dead.

Public pressure has mounted on Netanyahu's government to strike a truce deal that would secure the release of the remaining hostages.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, said that "after 200 days, the enemy remains trapped in the sands of Gaza" and the hostage would "most likely" not return home soon.

At a rally near Netanyahu's home in the coastal town of Caesarea, protesters including relatives of hostages set fire to a symbolic Passover table at the start of the week-long Jewish holiday on Monday.

Dalit Shtivi, whose son Idan was kidnapped on October 7, said she was struggling to cope without him during Passover, also known as the "holiday of freedom".

"It's so hard. I cannot explain the pain. I cannot... think of celebrating without him," she said in a statement.

US campus protests

Outcry has been growing around the world against Israel's offensive, which has turned vast areas of Gaza to rubble and sparked fears of famine.

Hundreds of students have been arrested in recent days at pro-Palestinian demonstrations on the campuses of prominent university campuses in the United States, Israel's top ally and military supplier.

In Gaza, the United Nations says "multiple obstacles" continue to impede delivery of urgently needed aid for Gazans desperate for food, water, shelter and medicine.

But Netanyahu has vowed to press on with a planned offensive on Rafah, on the besieged territory's border with Egypt.

Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plans, the Wall Street Journal said Israel was planning to move civilians from Rafah to nearby Khan Yunis over two to three weeks.

Satellite images shared by Maxar Technologies showed tent camps that had recently been set up in that area.

The Journal reported that Israel would then send troops into Rafah gradually, targeting areas where Hamas's leaders are thought to be hiding, in a military operation that would last six weeks.

But humanitarian workers do not know any evacuation plans, Red Cross official Fabrizio Carboni said.

"There is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences" in Rafah, Carboni told AFP.

Call to renew UN agency funding 

The European Union's humanitarian chief Janez Lenarcic called on international donors to fund the United Nations agency UNRWA, calling it "the Palestinian refugees' lifeline".

His comment came after a much-awaited independent report found that "Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence" for its claim that UNRWA employs "terrorists".

The report did found "neutrality-related issues", such as agency staff sharing biased posts on social media.

While some countries have renewed funding for the agency which has been central to humanitarian operations in Gaza, the United States and Britain are among the hold-outs.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington would "have to see real progress" before it restores funding.

The Gaza war has triggered violence across the region, with deadly cross-border exchanges on Tuesday between the Israeli army and Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Hamas ally.

The Iran-backed Lebanese group said it launched drones at northern Israeli army bases in retaliation for a strike deep into Lebanon that killed a Hezbollah fighter.

A woman and a girl were killed in an Israeli strike on southern Lebanon later on Tuesday, local rescuers and official media said.


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